Now the park itself and the beautiful Keltic Lodge hotel on a rocky peninsula jutting out into the ocean are certainly a big part of the draw, but I get the sense that the course is of almost equal billing. It’s a national landmark and we encountered golfers from all over Canada. All were familiar with the course’s renown and several mentioned that it was designed by Stanley Thompson, Canada’s most famous architect (they also all said ‘eh’ and talked about hockey). While the course has always been a remote outpost of Canadian golf, it’s become a much more justifiable trip with the development of Cabot only about an hour-and-a-half to the south. You can fly into Sydney airport from Toronto or Montreal, play the nearby Lakes at Ben Eoin (very good) and/or Baddeck Bay (not as good but still nice) as a warm-up and then out to the coast of Cape Breton Island for what’s become Canada’s top golf destination.
Highland Links has always been one of the courses that I was most interested in seeing in the world because it seems so different from other top courses. Pictures make it seem like an adventure through very different, but equally spectacular landscapes—from the sea’s edge, through rolling meadows, into and then back out of deep mountain forests. And that aspect of it did not disappoint; with the exception of not having a hole on the actual coast of the ocean (just ocean-adjacent ponds), this course goes through as many different types of environments as any I’ve seen. I’m an avid hiker and if there weren’t a golf course here, it would be one of the more memorable hikes that I’ve done. Thompson loved the variety that this property offered and he took advantage of it. I didn’t have the time to go hiking while I was up there but I think that walking two rounds on this course did the job, both in terms of seeing what the park had to offer and degree of difficulty.
Getting into the design of the course, the variety of landscapes is obviously a strength. There are many different types of beautiful holes here, running through meadows (1 and 18), along coastal ponds (3, 6) up and down through mountain valleys (7-9) and alongside mountain streams (11-12). The other strengths of the course are (1) how well Thompson used the terrain on each of the individual holes and (2) the outstanding green contours. Other than perhaps St. George’s Hill, I’ve never seen a course where the contours in the fairway play such an important role in how you want to drive the ball. And I wasn’t prepared for the greens contouring, which is a fantastic mix of bold and subtle and whose variety almost matches the variety in the landscape.
Highland Links does have a few drawbacks. The middle holes (9-12) are weak. And there’s about a 400 yard walk between the twelfth and thirteenth hole that I don’t understand. But the opening stretch has as many excellent holes and as much variety as you could want. The closing stretch, while not quite matching either of these points, is also very good and presents some good opportunities to score if you’ve gotten lost in the woods a few times up to this point.
Despite its very wide fairway, the 400 yard first is one of the toughest holes here. It probably plays about 40 ft. uphill, the fairway is as contoured as most links courses (that’ll be a feature of several other holes too), and the green has both a false front and wild interior contours. Plus it plays straight to the west, so into the prevailing wind. Uphill holes are always a good test of solid ball striking but this one throws in a few more testing elements. Not a gentle handshake to start, but certainly playable enough.
While it’s a straight-forward drive from the middle tees (just left of the third green), it’s a very challenging drive out of a chute to the right of the third green from the tips. The key feature here is the large rise in the fairway. Unless you hit it >215 or hug the right side, you’ll hit into the face of the hill and have a semi-blind or blind uphill approach to the green. And if you get aggressive, take driver or three-wood and pull it left, there’s a hidden pond left of the fairway, with the left side of the fairway sloping in this direction.
So it’s really important to hit a good drive here because if you don’t (1) the visibility on the second will be poor and (2) you’ll end up with a fairly long approach into a well-defended, narrow hilltop green. You really don’t want to be coming into this green with more than a wedge, which makes the drive critical. It’s a great example of fairway contours making a hole great—and it won’t be the last time that we’ll see this.
But let’s start with the negative; the forest on the left off the tee has become overgrown. Hopefully the recent Hurricane Fiona, one of the most powerful storms ever to hit this region, took care of some of them. As of July 2022, it was a butt-puckeringly narrow drive, although long hitters can just go straight over the trees (probably 240 in the air). If you go straight down the chute, you probably need to hit it 250 to carry up the slope in the middle of the fairway. If you can carry the trees to the left or 270 down the fairway, you’ll reach the far side and kick forward. Like the fourth, this is a great example of using contours to make a great drive. And it’d be even better with tree removal on the left because then you could use that hill to kick the ball forward into the fairway valley and it’d kick right if you didn’t make the carry.
What makes this hole so great for the rest of us is that from the crest of the fairway at about 180 yards, it’s almost all downhill to the green. So it’s easily drivable even for those who aren’t the longest hitters. But the woods encroach on the left and you’d better be accurate if going for it. If you layup with a long iron as I did, your ball will settle on a plateau about 80 yards short of the large, heavily back-to-front sloping green. It’s a fairly easy hole if you’re careful, but I think that’s appropriate after two of the toughest back-to-back par 5s that you’ll see.
In short, I like the current ninth hole, but I think that the routing here would feel a bit more cohesive with my alternative, which should work well in its own right.
I suspect that this hole would have originally had a view of the river on the left and have been beautiful, but they’ve built a dyke along it to prevent this hole from becoming a swamp after it flooded.
But I don’t really understand why this walk was necessary. While the area between the holes is hilly, it isn’t like we have to go up and over a mountain. Having walked through here, it seemed like most of the area was flat enough to build a hole and looking at it on Google Earth, there’s plenty of flatter ground going toward the fourteenth green. I would think that there could have been a long par 4 or short par 5 here ending somewhere between the current thirteenth tee and fourteenth green. My version of the routing would kill the par 3 tenth, although the ninth green would be near the current eleventh tee.
But that’s not what we have. And there’s an argument to be made for the 400 yard walk in its own right. This course is almost as much about hiking as playing golf. Until 20 or 25 years ago, there were no golf carts here. So the 400 yard walk functioned as an interlude in the golf and a beautiful one at that, alongside the Clyburn Brook. I wonder if Thompson had a more golf-cohesive version of the routing but eschewed it for this one that gives you a pause in the golf and allows you to just take in the scenery?
The fairway is quite something—bumpier than almost any links course that I’ve played. A lot fairways here have this bumpiness, but this one is easiest the most bumpy. And apparently all of this was constructed by Thompson and his associates, with Thompson directing the placement of rock and dirt to achieve the look and playing characteristics that he wanted.
You want to aim up the left side because this leaves the best angle into probably the most steeply pitched green on the course. The green both angles and slopes from back-right to front-left and if the pin is in the front-left bowl, you’re much better off missing the green short than anywhere else.
So the land is incredibly well-used on the macro-level. But it’s also well-used on a micro-one. The land’s contours provide the course’s main source of driving challenge and opportunity. On at least a half-dozen holes, a well-conceived and well-executed drive can catch a slope and bound forward while one that isn’t well-conceived or isn’t well-executed will hit and upslope and leave a difficult second. This isn’t an accident; even with the same routing, a lesser architect could have put the fairways in slightly different places and lost much of the greatness of holes 4, 7, 8, 13, and 15. The only course that I can think of which uses slopes in the fairways so effectively is Colt’s great St. George’s Hill.
I was also a bit surprised by how good the greens were. Given the reputation of both Thompson and the course, I probably shouldn’t have been. But there’s so much variety in these greens. Some have big, heaving slopes (2, 18). Some have tiers or internal ridges (3, 5, 15). And some just have a lot of less-describable contour (7). If you put this set of greens on an otherwise average course, it’d stand out in most neighborhoods.
I really wish that there were more courses like this: national park courses that took advantage of their spectacular locations. Canada has two more of them: Jasper Park and Banff Springs, both designed by Stanley Thompson in the 30s, I’d imagine to stimulate employment. It’d be great to have courses like these in some of America’s national parks. Imagine if Donald Ross or Alastair MacKenzie had been given a similar mandate to build a course in Yellowstone or on the outskirts of either Great Smoky Mountain National Park or Yosemite? Perhaps then we could have learned to bring golf together with the broader conservation movement and avoid some of the destructive wastefulness that the sport has embraced over the past few decades.